Cover Image

The Phar Lap Mystery by S. Masson

Masson, Sophie.  The Phar Lap Mystery.  Sydney, Aust.:  Scholastic, 2010.  Print

The end notes of this historical novel describe the details of the remarkable Australian racehorse, Phar Lap, who, in the difficult times of the Great Depression, gave Australians something positive to think about.  The cover image, from the collection of the State Library of Victoria, shows the big red horse in full stride, tail flying, jockey crouched behind his neck, reigns pulled tight.

While the novel tracks alongside the historical story, it is a delightfully written account presented as a two-year diary of an eleven year-old girl.  Diarist, Sally Fielding, is very conscious of the fact that she is writing for posterity.  She begins her September 19, 1931 entry with “Hill Stakes Day, and the best day ever!  I want to write down absolutely everything, to remember it all.”

Author, Sophie Masson, who has written more than fifty juvenile novels, gives the reader a good snapshot of life in the 1930’s in urban Eastern Australia.   From the “chooks” in the back yard, to the fancy hats of the well-to-do ladies at the Rosehill racecourse, to the seedy characters from the underbelly of the racing industry, Masson’s detailed descriptions help to draw us into Sally’s world.   Aussie slang is sprinkled throughout the book to add to the “down-under” flavour.  “Strewth”, which is a mild oath like “crikey” appears often.  Sally refers to a young man with whom she is not impressed, as a “real mick”, denies that she’s a “stickybeak” when she really has been snooping and has a “slap up” lunch, which is a very good one.

The story stretches over two years beginning with Sally’s private detective father first being engaged to try to find out who took a shot at Phar Lap and ends with Sally and her father going to America when Phar Lap is taken there  to race.  Sally’s diary chronicles her reactions to the various dangerous twists and turns of the case, her father’s on-again, off-again romance, and Sally’s general chatter about friends and events around her.  The family’s economic struggles are ever-present.  Occasionally readers are treated to a facsimile of a real newspaper article or a letter, which is “glued” into the volume, reinforcing the illusion that you really are reading someone’s diary.

Overall this is a thoroughly enjoyable read that captures your attention and holds it through to the surprising ending.  The Phar Lap Mystery will appeal to readers from pre-teens through adults and especially to readers who love horses. Highly recommended for junior high and high school libraries, as well as public libraries everywhere.

Reviewer: Sandy Campbell
Highly recommended:  4 out of 4 stars

Sandy is a Health Sciences Librarian at the University of Alberta, who has written hundreds of book reviews across many disciplines.  Sandy thinks that sharing books with children is one of the greatest gifts anyone can give.